Let me begin by saying that I’m writing this article with a mojito in hand. This morning I woke up, had a leisurely breakfast and explored a new town. And it’s Tuesday. I am without a doubt in love with traveling.
But I’m going to share a secret… Sometimes traveling straight up sucks. And that’s putting it delicately. Sometimes it's a nightmare.
It is not my intention to sound like I’m complaining. I know how privileged I am to explore new places, and I wouldn’t choose to be doing anything else at the moment. It's my goal this year to focus on being grateful for things, even when they don't turn out as expected.
So why am I writing about times that travel sucks?
I want to make it known that not every moment traveling is filled with sunshine and fruity drinks. Not every day is worthy of documenting on Instagram, like people often assume. There have been tears and times when I wonder why I’m traveling at all.
In fact, I had one of these days quite recently. After a quick trip back home for a very special wedding, we had a long travel day. Like really long. 46 hours long, to be exact. After 4 flights, one night spent at the airport, a taxi, a bus, and a ferry, we FINALLY made it to our destination – an island in the gulf of Thailand called Koh Tao.
It was 3:30 in the afternoon when we arrived, and all we wanted to do was sleep. So we zombie-walked to our guesthouse, opened the door to our rustic little bungalow, and I don’t really remember much after that.
When I woke in the morning, I was COVERED in bites. Hundreds of them. Too many to count, really. And they itched like hell. The guesthouse owner said I must have gotten them “somewhere else”, to which I was too tired to explain that this was the first strange bed I’d slept in for more than a week.
So my first few days on this island paradise were spent trying to stop myself from scratching, applying expensive steroid creams, and attempting to convince myself to wear a bikini in public even though I was covered in hideous red bumps.
I was exhausted from travel, deliriously jet-lagged, frustrated by the guesthouse owner’s denial, and embarrassed to go to the beach. There were a few days I just wanted to call it quits.
And it was during those days that I received a message from an old friend that said something to the effect of, “Your life looks perfect.” I laughed as I scratched my bite-ridden shoulder, and realized that perhaps I, like many people, share mostly just the positives in my life with the world and refrain from posting the negatives.
I don’t want to be a downer, but I do want to let you in on the reality that just like everything, travel has its ups and downs. I want to share the good, but also give you a glimpse of the bad in order to shatter the illusion that just because I travel a lot my life is perfect.
So here it goes: These are a few of the times that travel straight up sucks!
1. Travel days
Ben and I joke that our least favorite part about travel is travel itself. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love to fly. I get a buzz every time I step foot into an airport, but flights are only one piece of transportation (especially during long-term travel).
There are times when we spend days on end in uncomfortable trains. I’ve gotten seasick in overcrowded ferries, and don’t even get me started on night buses. We've had to sleep in more airports than I'd like to count. And crossing into a new country by land can be stressful, and oftentimes the border towns are sketchy and not exactly a treat to stay in.
The only way we get through it sometimes is to bring a bag full of snacks (which is always gone much quicker than we think) and watch Friends on our laptop to distract us from the 18-hour ride ahead of us. Until the laptop dies. That's when things get really rough.
The redeeming quality of travel days is the excitement you feel upon arriving in a new destination. Nothing feels better than setting your bags down and resting your head on a pillow instead of a vinyl seat.
2. When you have a craving
Sometimes (okay, every damn day) I crave cheese. And it just ain’t easy to be a cheese lover in Asia unless you’re willing to pay a lot. I am considering starting a fund for my dairy cravings, but until then, I’ve been limiting myself to only having cheese occasionally. And when I do, I’m usually disappointed. Just today, I caved and spent an extra dollar and a half for cheese to be added to my omelet. I rolled my eyes when my eggs arrived with two perfectly cut triangles of an American Kraft Single slapped on top. This is NOT cheese, guys, it's plastic!
Aside from my cheese-snob lustings, there are other things I crave occasionally that I just can’t seem to find overseas. One of the most common things I desire while traveling is healthy food. Ya know, stuff that hasn’t been fried in a gallon of oil… There are some towns, thankfully, where vegan and veg cafes are abundant, and it seems like every backpacker is sipping a green smoothie as they pass by. And then there are long streaks where I go without a single fresh veggie, and I start dreaming of kale. Not joking.
This is a two-way problem, you see. I’ve been completely spoiled with the most delicious and authentic foods Asia has to offer, and I know I won’t have a mermaid’s chance on land finding anything comparable when I return home.
I’ve almost trained my body not to crave things anymore. Because often times, I will not be able to satisfy that urge for hummus, gouda, real coffee, a fudgy brownie… oh dear Lord, the cravings are coming back. Must. Stop. Writing.
3. Getting ripped off
This is an unfortunate part of being a traveler. Locals can spot tourists and often times charge more than they should.
Don’t get me wrong, I know the fact that I’m traveling in another country means I’ve been given opportunities that many people in the places I visit are not granted. I know that to some extent I will be charged a “tourist tax,” and I’ve come to terms with this.
But then there are times when I feel downright ripped off, and wonder if somewhere along the way I’ve been branded with a stamp that reads “charge me double” that's only visible to locals. Over time, I have learned how to spot scams, and determine when a price is fair… most of the time. Getting ripped off still happens to the most experienced of travelers.
4. When there’s bad weather
I don’t want to get all cliché here, but sometimes rain really can ruin the most carefully laid plans. There are times when I can make the best of the rain. Put on my bikini and dance in the storm. But more often than not, I get bummed when crappy weather changes my plans.
For example, when we were in Japan, we made a long (and expensive) trip to Hakone, the town that lies just beside Mount Fuji. I had imagined taking the cable car and peering through the windows at the snowcapped peak just beyond the glass. But when we arrived, all I saw was white. I was literally standing inside a cloud and viewing the famed mountain was impossible.
And here’s the kicker… the day after we left, the forecast showed clear skies. That always seems to happen, right?
We still had a good time relaxing in our beautiful ryoken (traditional Japanese guesthouse), and tried to see the beauty in the overcast, snowy sky. I tried to be positive about the whole thing. But in all honestly, I was pretty upset. It was such a bummer to be that close to the mountain and not even get a glimpse.
But this happens often when traveling and there’s nothing you can do about it. We’ve been dreaming about scuba diving in a particular spot, only to have terrible visibility. Rain has cancelled our plans more than once. And active volcanoes have rerouted our flights.
I’m trying to work on the whole “dancing in the rain” attitude, but let me tell you, it’s harder than it sounds. I am getting better though, and travel teaches me again and again that my attitude can be the difference between an adventure and a mishap.
5. Saying Goodbye
Travel, by its very nature means there’s an end date in sight. Saying goodbye to cities and towns you’ve really fallen for is hard. Often times you don’t know wen you’ll be back. And even more difficult is saying goodbye to people you’ve met along the way. People you’ve shared experiences with and gotten to know well. People you know you’d be great friends with if only you lived in the same city limits. Time and distance will only tell if and when you’ll next meet, and it really, really sucks to say goodbye.
6. Getting sick
What do you crave when you’re sick? For me, it’s my bed, hot soup, tea, and an endless stream of movies.
Getting sick while traveling is not an uncommon occurrence, and it doesn’t help when you’re in a strange bed and the only chicken noodle soup available is spicy enough to induce tears and snot… not exactly a good thing when you’re sick. Trust me.
And while we’ve been lucky enough that the worst of it has been food poisoning (knock on wood), we’ve met others who haven’t been so fortunate. Motorbike accidents are not uncommon in Southeast Asia, and we recently met a woman who spent 3 weeks of her holiday in an Indian hospital with a blood infection. Yikes!
7. Missing out on things at home
This is without a doubt the hardest part of long-term travel for us. While we’ve been away, we have missed out on too many weddings to count. We’ve also missed big events like births and small ones like nights out with friends. Spending holidays overseas can be depressing, and sometimes we feel isolated being gone for so long. And there are some days that we just miss the familiarity of our home in Minnesota. Nearly every long-term traveler or expat we have spoken with can agree on this.
But this is one of the sacrifices we make with the purchase of a one-way ticket. And 95% of the time we are okay with it. Just don’t cross my path on the other 5% of the time.
8. Normal tasks
Friends and family often ask, What do you do all day when you’re traveling? Are you always doing crazy, fun, new things?
Yes and no. Half of the time we're doing super exciting stuff – scuba diving, hiking, laying on the beach, zip-lining, rappelling off of waterfalls – you name it!
But the other half of the time is spent doing the mundane things I'd be doing even if I were at home. Laundry, stocking up on soap or other essentials we're constantly running out of. Sewing up ripped clothing (okay, Ben usually does this). Planning our next leg of the trip, applying for visas, writing blog articles, sitting on a bus (see #2).
I guess these things don’t totally suck, but they just aren’t the super exciting moments most people imagine I have every minute of every day. 24/7. For every adventurous moment, there is a non-exciting moment too. And sometimes it feels like the latter are more common.
9. Being disappointed by famous sights
There are times when I am absolutely stunned by this world, and can’t put into words how lucky I am to have been able to see some of the wonders this earth has to offer.
But there are also moments I am disappointed.
I took an Asian Art History course in university and remember hearing my professor lecture passionately about the temples at Angkor Wat. Ever since, it has been on the top of my list of places to go. I dreamed about arriving to Angkor Wat at sunrise to see her reflection in the lily-covered pond. I imagined strolling through archways and hearing birds chirp as the sun finally parted with the horizon, casting a pink glow through the deserted ancient pathways.
OHMYGOSH was I wrong! We arrived just after 5 a.m. to an already growing crowd. Cameras flashed, people pushed, and fights ensued. Yes, people were fighting on these holy grounds. No chirping birds did I hear.
We decided to leave even before the sun peaked over the silhouetted temple, and headed to lesser-known ruins where we were among just a handful of people. From there, we climbed atop the temple and watched the sun cast a glow over the ancient stones and listen to the birds chirp for the first time.
More often than not, I’ve found that the places that impress me most are the ones I stumble upon accidentally. Many bigger sights are still worthwhile (I couldn’t have gone to Cambodia without seeing Angkor Wat), but don’t always deserve as much hype as they receive.
10. When things are out of your control
This is going to make me sound like a huge control freak, but sometimes there is just so much out of my hands that I want to scream in frustration. And sometimes I do (but mostly in my head).
Like the time when you have a flight to catch, but the bus driver seems to be driving slower than an elderly sloth. Or when you arrive in a town during a festival and every guesthouse is fully booked. Or when the Internet just won’t work with me and I get kicked off every time I try to pay my credit card bill.
I could go on, but I can feel my blood pressure rising, and I’m trying this thing called “letting go of what you can’t control”. For the record: it sounds easier than it is.
11. When everyday tasks are much harder than they should be
Let me list some of the things that are a struggle:
Printing anything. How in the hell am I supposed to print my Indian visa when every place I ask says, “Sorry, no printing”?!
Finding tampons (sorry, gentlemen). The struggle is real. (So much so that I’ve switched to a Diva Cup, which is ahhhmazing, ladies!)
Getting a good night’s sleep when one of the following things is happening: parties are taking place in the street below your window, your neighbors are loud doin’ whatever they’re doin’, you hotel is located near an airport or the railroad tracks (or both).
Sometimes finding good Wi-Fi is like finding a 4-leaf clover.
Making phone calls. Why do I need to have a 4 digit PIN sent to my phone to confirm my doctor appointment in 6 months? Why?!
Not getting the right thing when you order food at a restaurant. One of the many side effects of language barriers.
When something breaks, it always happens to be at the worst time, in the middle of nowhere. Just last week, Ben had to walk around with duct-taped sandals AND duct-taped sunglasses… AT THE SAME TIME. Back off ladies, he’s taken…
Going to the bathroom. Asia, for instance, has many a squatter toilet, and finding toilet paper in public restrooms is rare. Eww. Oh, and don't even think about throwing the tissue inside the john, or you'll have some shitty issues (sorry, had to!).
Doing laundry. Sometimes it’s as simple as handing a stinking pile of clothes to your hotel desk, and other times, it requires washing (by hand) that stinky pile of clothes in a sink.
Living out of a suitcase (or backpack) can be exhausting. The constant packing and unpacking can really start to wear on anyone over time.
12. Straight up horror stories
Thankfully, we've been pretty lucky on our travels, and the true horror stories are few and far between. (Knock on wood?!) But we've met people who've told us some pretty crazy accounts that make us want to crawl into a cave and never return to the outside world...
We heard a story of a group of 9 travelers being held at gunpoint in Tanzania, being instructed to hand over their passports so that all Americans in the group could be killed. (Thankfully none were US citizens.)
A French couple we met crossed the border from Thailand into Myanmar on bicycle and set up camp for the night, only to be caught in the middle of gunfire between the military and rebels. And a Spanish pair found themselves in trouble while traversing South America in a van. They were crossing a mountain pass and the an eroded road caused their vehicle to nearly slide down the side of the mountain, taking them with it.
Although it's rare, sometimes travel can be a nightmare.
Check out some of our readers' Travel Horror Stories that'll give you goosebumps. (Who doesn't like a good scare?!)
We don't want you to walk away from this article being scared of travel. Before you consider our whole "hiding out in a cave idea", know that the good parts of travel far outweigh the bad. Travel teaches valuable lessons, brings people closer together and gives us new perspectives about this incredible world in which we live.
But it just has to be said that not every day is perfect while traveling.